Quick Tomato Pan Sauce

Gentle Readers, it has been a week. I’m sure many of you are also feeling the strain of being quarantined and the challenges it brings. Perhaps you’re an essential worker and you have to try to act normal in a world that most decidedly isn’t. Or maybe you’re new to work from home (trust me, it’s not always like this!), and you are completely over it.


A big part of my typical work is travel. I miss it. A lot. So I’m trying to take little trips via my kitchen, but that is tiring, too. There is no shame in saying that cooking everything from scratch three times a day is hard.

Enter one of my exhaustion dishes. I tend to keep a container of cherry tomatoes in my house most of the time. They’re a quick snack, an easy add to a salad, and I just think they are cute. But perhaps they’ve been sitting there a little long, or you’re craving something extra.

I’ve got you.

Quick Tomato Pan Sauce

This makes a couple of servings if you are generous with it, but could be spread to serve four if you are making crostini or just using a dollop for brightness on a dish.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed with the blade of your chef’s knife
8 to 16 ounces of cherry tomatoes (or whatever you have on hand, just trying to give some parameters), washed and sliced in half
salt and pepper
pinch of sugar
1 sprig fresh herbs (I tend toward either rosemary, thyme, or oregano)

  1. Heat your favorite heavy bottomed skillet (pick a smaller one for this amount) over medium heat. Add the olive oil and the garlic, cook just until you smell the garlic. You are flavoring the oil with the garlic here as opposed to trying to cook the garlic.
  2. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar. Stir. Add the herbs and keep stirring.
  3. Cook until the tomatoes dissolve a bit but aren’t just puree. Adjust the heat and seasoning to suit. I sometimes deglaze the pan with a few tablespoons of water if the tomatoes are dry or they are cooking too fast and start sticking to the pan.
  4. Serve on top of toast, eggs, leftover pasta, you name it.


Coming up next week, plantains. 

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The Art of Recipe Usage: Pantry Granola Bars

Note: Gentle Readers, please welcome a very special guest author to the blog this week. You know her as the Eldest of The Practical Cooks Junior, and this is her debut writing for this blog. I launched the blog when she was 5 years old, and she’s now 15. She has been around kitchens, farms, food, and creativity for a long time, and she is just starting to cook on her own. –The Practical Cook

Recipes are often mistakenly thought of as blueprints. If the recipe tells you to add the onions to the pan and cook for five minutes then that’s what you should do. The reasoning is the same as if you have a blueprint of a wall, you put the wall where it is marked. But recipes are not blueprints, they are guidelines. And onions burn, really easily. Maybe your stovetop runs hotter than the author’s does and your onions begin to blacken and burn after three minutes. What do you do? The recipe doesn’t know. I would reduce the heat and move on to the next step of the recipe. 

I’ve been frying eggs, microwaving oatmeal, and toasting bread since I was little. But in the past year I began to truly cook for the first time. Cooking is, to me, the act of preparing and transforming food into whatever you want. It’s an act of creation and of science. And as with most skills: it’s the split second decision that reveal knowledge. When onions burn, you reduce the heat. When sautéing vegetables you put fat, oil, or butter in the pan first and only once it’s hot. When you add way too many beans you add more of all the other ingredients. 

Recipes are here to help. The recipe isn’t cooking the food. You are. The recipe or recipes are there just as your grandmother, father, mother, or other relative might be. They are telling you what worked for them and what might work for you. If everyone, all your friends, are high jumpers and they all flop over the high bar chances are you should too. The same applies to recipes. If you want to make granola bars and every recipe includes oats, chances are you need oats. 

I made granola bars for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I spent about an hour scrolling through the search results for “homemade granola bars,” “peanut butter granola bars,” and “granola bar recipes.” I discovered something: most of the recipes were the same. They all had a binding ingredient: eggs, honey, peanut butter. They also all had oats and a sweetener: molasses, honey. Most had the option to add different nuts or fruits.

There was one clear difference: some granola bar recipes required baking, some didn’t. Among the ones that didn’t, every recipe spoke of keeping them in the fridge and the fact that they fell apart at room temperature. I was making granola bars for my family to take to school and work. I knew I wanted to use a recipe that required baking. 

From there it was simply a matter of ingredients. I was not leaving my house to get unnecessary ingredients. I found a recipe that used five ingredients that I had. The bars I chose called for oats, eggs, maple syrup, chocolate chips, and peanut butter. (The recipe called for mini chocolate chips, but I had the regular sized ones. Would it change the recipe in some crucial way to have bigger chips? No. I made the bars.)

They weren’t perfect. They fell apart a bit. Most dishes aren’t perfect the first time. I made the bars again a week later and this time put the chips on top and let them cool for longer, and this time they didn’t break. 


A Granola Bar Sitting Very Casually and Smiling for the Camera

If you are struggling to tell whether an ingredient is crucial, check out other recipes. Is the ingredient in other recipes? No, probably not. Yes, find a substitute. If you don’t feel comfortable cooking one recipe based on your gut, keep looking. Anything used for garnishes can be eliminated. Most things have a perfectly fine substitute.

Remember, most cooking is not precise. Just as much as it is a science, it is an art. The real skill is learning to distinguish between the two. Not baking the granola bars will result in raw eggs, which could give you salmonella. That’s science, don’t mess with that. Using regular size chocolate chips versus mini is not going to change anything except the concentration of chocolate. That’s taste and art. You have license to do whatever you feel like. You can even omit them and add almonds instead. It won’t affect the rest of the recipe. 


Cooking is a skill. It takes time. The recipes are there for you to support your journey and inform you of people’s past successes and failures. So if one recipe tells you that you cannot put eggs in your granola bars but every other recipe tells you it’s okay, treat it the same as that one friend who’s throwing a party at their house even though the government recommends that no groups over ten meet. Don’t listen. Do what you feel is right because you are the cook. 

Coming up next, The Practical Cooks try their hand at Cuban food. 

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Hoppin’ John Reimagined: Instant Pot and Vegetarian

Gentle Readers, don’t believe all that you read on the internet. Especially if it concerns the cooking time for black-eyed peas in an InstantPot. This dish is one of our favorites, and has a lot of toppings, which we happened to have leftover from this and that.


Hoppin’ John vegetarian style

If you have to choose, don’t skip the tomatoes. They add a freshness that brightens the dish and my mood. Yes, I’m Southern, and yes I can cook dried beans without putting a pig leg in there. Though I eat meat, I don’t like to sacrifice flavor for the rest of the family. Here’s how.

Vegetarian Hoppin’ John InstantPot Recipe

Once more, this is a combination of much Internet research, a lifetime of cooking and eating black-eyed peas, while also paying homage to Bill Smith’s rendition at the Chapel Hill institution Crook’s Corner. I use ghee instead of bacon fat, and the Parmesan rind adds unbelievable depth of flavor.

1 bag of dried black-eyed peas (let’s be honest, they were what’s left during the recent raid on dried beans, I picked up an extra one on principle)
2 healthy Tablespoons of ghee
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1/4 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
3 or 4 good grinds of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
6 cups water
1 Parmesan rind (most grocery stores sell these, and they rock, otherwise you can chop the end off of your Parmesan and toss it end, or start saving them going forward)

1-2 cups cooked rice
shredded cheddar cheese
2 scallions, chopped, white and green parts
1 tomato, diced
4 strips of facon bacon, cooked and crumbled
hot sauce, optional, but is it really?

  1. Wash and rinse the black-eyed peas, picking out any bad ones or stones. Drain well.
  2. Set up your InstantPot, turn on Sauté function and wait until it says HOT.
  3. Put the ghee into the InstantPot, let it melt and warm up, then sauté the carrots and onion until they are soft but not burning, a few minutes.
  4. Add the salt, pepper, thyme, and bay leaf. Stir well. Add the water and Parmesan rind, stir well. Add the black-eyed peas, and stir however you’d like to at this point.
  5. Put the lid on the InstantPot, set the lid to sealed/pressure. Cancel the program and set to cook at High Pressure for 15 minutes. Once it cooks, let it Natural Pressure Release for 15 minutes.
  6. Open the pot, stir, discard the bay leaf and the Parmesan rind. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt if needed.
  7. Serve black-eyed peas over cooked rice, topping with cheese, scallions, tomato, and facon. Dash with hot sauce and enjoy.

Coming up next, Homemade Granola Bars from The Practical Cook Junior. 


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Grilling What You’ve Got: Carrots, Cauliflower, Broccoli

Gentle Readers, few things elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary like grilling. The most loathed vegetable becomes the anticipated one with some char marks and seasoning.


Carrots, Corn, Broccoli, and Chicken from the Grill

Because, to paraphrase the Simpson’s episode, you can’t make friends with salad, sometimes the easiest way to keep on-hand vegetables from becoming snoozers is to grill them. Whether this will be your whole meal or the side act to your chops, here’s how to up your game.

Grilling Carrots, Cauliflower, Broccoli

  • If you use a gas grill (I’m unapologetic about my love for my Weber), soak some wood chips for at least 30 minutes, drain them, and use a smoker box (well worth the investment) or a foil pouch to contain them on your grill. We are very fond of pecan wood, and even grill/smoked our green beans for Thanksgiving this year.
  • Use skewers (metal or wooden) or a vegetable grate or basket to keep things from falling into your grill.
  • Don’t be afraid of heat. Medium-high to high works well to get the smoke rolling, to put some serious char on the vegetables, and to get you to the table to eat.
  • Don’t hold back on the seasoning. I’ve found that smoke and char are awesome for veggies, but this trinity really benefits from a heavy hand. Try commercial mixes (like the McCormic line), Old Bay, Lowry’s, or any of the Trader Joe’s (garlic salt and everyday seasoning are great). This plus olive oil and you’re getting somewhere.
  • Turn your carrots into hot dogs! (Yes, I’ve done this, and I think they are better than not dogs you would buy at the store.) Bonus: you can shortcut this in the InstantPot before you grill.
  • If you don’t want to go full carrot dog, stab your peeled carrots a few times, make a simple marinade (some oil, a little soy sauce, some ginger, salt and pepper), marinate the carrots while you prep everything else and straight grill them. They don’t fall through the grates and they are so easy. We do the multi-colored ones from Trader Joe’s.
  • Cauliflower benefits from a finishing sauce. I’m working on perfecting my Harissa version, but my go-to is Gobi Manchurian. I grill the cauliflower with just salt, pepper, and olive oil, and I mean I blacken it to some extent, then toss with sauce that is basically reduce ketchup.
  • Broccoli on the grill is just roasted broccoli with less indoor mess. Spice mix, salt, pepper, oil, high heat, toss into a vegetable basket. I like a little red pepper flake with them for interest. The wood smoke also adds a layer of flavor and interest here, so worth the extra step.

Up next time, Vegetarian Hoppin’ John!



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Plain Noodle Soup

Gentle Readers, it’s dreary and cold at my house tonight while I’m writing this—just the sort of weather that calls for soup. Because my family has steadily marched from being a crew of picky omnivores to a group of picky herbivores, I’ve been challenging myself to take on new cuisines to diversify dinner and keep myself from being bored.


Plain Noodle Soup

It started with Bon Appetit (I’m not paid to say so, I got a subscription through my Amazon Prime membership and fell deeply in love). They had an issue on simple Korean food at home, and I had some early success. Then I checked out some books on Chinese cooking at the library. I made a few simple things with great success and decided to take the leap.

Confession time: I’ve always been intimidated by Asian recipes. I’ve either been overwhelmed by the list of ingredients or equipment I don’t have, or by my complete ignorance of the technique required to produce even an imitation of Americanized Chinese restaurant staples. (Real confession: I’m so terrible at making rice I wouldn’t even be posting this if the InstantPot hadn’t come into my life to stand in as a rice cooker.)

Googling the top Chinese cookbooks led me to The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. It is simple, accessible, and the recipes work. But then came the inevitable and necessary trip to the Asian market. Let’s be clear, I love love love grocery stores. I visit them in foreign countries like I’m on a special field trip. But usually I take a friend as a local guide with me so I don’t make a mess of the adventure. Also, did I mention I can’t speak or read Chinese and I’m allergic to shellfish so need to be a little careful about sauces?

More googling led me to The Woks of Life. They have the most amazing guide to Asian markets, complete with direct brand recommendations and PICTURES for the nervous newcomers like me. Best of all, they offer comfort and confidence, very similar to my mission with this blog. Do yourself a favor and go subscribe—it’s like joining a family picnic where everyone is a good cook.

All of this is to say, if you like noodles, and you like soup, give this a try. Look for more adventures in my attempt to learn to cook Chinese recipes (MaPo Tofu and Garlicky Pea Tips anyone?).

Plain Noodle Soup

This soup was inspired by and adapted from Yang Chun Noodle Soup from The Woks of Life. They are teaching me to chill out and use what I have on hand and I am trusting them and doing just that. Since we are feeding non-pork eaters, I substituted ghee for lard with great results. If you don’t have dark soy sauce, consider investing or check for a substitution (the internet offers a few).

Serves 2 as a meal, serves 4 as part of a meal

3 or 4 eggs
3 “bunches” of soba noodles (see the photo for the brand I found, any noodles will do, but soba noodles come wrapped in bunches within the larger package)
1 carton of commercial stock or 4 cups of your homemade stock of choice (I used turkey stock because one other person will eat meat stock on occasion and I needed to get rid of it, I’m aware it is not vegetarian but you can use some of your freshly made veggie stock here instead)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
2 heads of bok choy, rinsed well and roughly chopped
4 Tablespoons light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons ghee (you can buy it but it’s very easy to make, or sub bacon grease or lard or whatever tasty fat you have)
3 scallions (white and a good part of the green), sliced thin
extra soy sauce or chili sauce for the table

  1. Boil water in a large enough pot for 4 eggs and cook until jammy. I used the Bon Appetit guide for timing and method. Peel and set aside for now.
  2. Meanwhile, heat your stock to a gentle boil with the ginger in a small pot. Once boiling, toss in the bok choy and simmer until it’s tender (a few minutes).
  3. Boil some more water and prepare your noodles (use the lowest cooking time) per package instructions. Drain and give a quick rinse with cold water.
  4. While things are boiling, mix the soy sauces and the sugar, and divide them between bowls. Measure 1 Tablespoon of ghee into each serving bowl if making two servings, or 1/2 Tablespoon if four.
  5. Plate up: ladle equal portions of the stock/bok choy mixture (discarding the piece of ginger) into your serving bowls. This will melt your ghee. Add a generous portion of noodles to each bowl. Now slice your eggs in half and place them in your soup bowls. Finally, top each with scallions.

Coming up next, Grilling What You’ve Got. 


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InstantPot Vegetable Risotto Two Ways

Gentle Reader, life with picky eaters is my cross to bear. I was a picky eater as a kid, overcame it by taking over some of the cooking, and now I have to pay a karmic tax. This is typically solved by offering painless ways for people to customize a dish at the table.

If you are playing along at home and made some Vegetable Stock, now is your time to shine. Risotto is almost like a rice porridge, but not cooked as long. It’s rice, stock, and flavor. For the sake of my sanity, this version is made in the InstantPot. It is hands off, sautés and cooks in a single pot, and I can teach the Practical Cooks Junior to use it. Winning!


InstantPot Vegetable Risotto Two Ways

InstantPot Vegetable Risotto Two Ways

This recipe was adapted from Melissa Clark’s InstantPot Cookbook, Dinner in an Instant, which I recommend. She can flat out cook, so if she says this kitchen device is worth owning, I listen. I use her Yogurt recipe on a biweekly basis as well.

Here’s her recipe for Saffron Risotto.

Here’s how I adapted it:

  1. Double the recipe for a family of 4.
  2. I don’t have white wine in the house, so I substituted white wine vinegar. It was on the brink of too strong for me, but everyone else loved it. You can also use apple juice, or you could do some lemon juice and a bit of white wine vinegar. Or just use the wine if you have it!
  3. I don’t own a mortar and pestle, though I wish I did. I used a spoon and a bowl for the saffron, which I do own. Be sparing in your use of it, it is strong stuff. It makes a beautiful color. Omit if you don’t have it, but make sure you season the dish with salt, fresh herbs, lemon juice, etc. to make up for the loss.
  4. I used my unsalted veggie stock, but I seasoned it with a bit of white miso that I keep on hand. You can just add salt, but make sure your stock has flavor before you add it to the dish.

The Two Ways


Team Green Pea or Team Mushroom?

1 package of unseasoned peas
several ounces of mushrooms, mixture of your choice, cleaned, stemmed, sliced (save those scraps in the freezer for mushroom stock)
good quality butter
olive oil
salt and pepper
stem of fresh rosemary (optional but delicious)

  1. Prepare the peas according to package instructions, cooking them for the least amount of time. If you have baby peas, use them, but the larger tougher peas work really well here. Drain the peas, season with a hunk of good butter and some crunchy salt. Leave on the table as a side dish or additive to the risotto.
  2. Heat a medium pan over a strong medium heat, adding a good dollop of olive oil when it is hot. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper them, and add the rosemary. Cook until they lose a lot of their water, stirring constantly, and adding a bit of oil or salt if you need. When the mushrooms are a bit browned and cooked through, taste them and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve as a side dish or additive to the risotto.

For me, I added peas and mushrooms to my bowl, split the risotto and had each one separately. Others opted out of mushrooms and just had pea risotto. And still another contingent mixed everything, added more parmesan, and chowed down. There is no wrong answer.


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How to Make Vegetable Stock

Gentle Readers, having grown up in the country, I was used to having a compost pile the old-school way. Basically we gathered scraps and put them outside in a designated area and put some dirt on it occasionally. Not very scientific or very useful for me in the suburbs. Last year, I learned that my good friend in Austin had compost as a municipal service. Game changer, I wanted that.

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Vegetable Stock Before Photo

Fast forward to a breakfast get-together with friends, and someone told me about Compost Now, a service here in North Carolina where you get a bucket, put in all your scraps (meat and dairy and soggy pizza box included) and affix the lid, and they just magically take it away every week and turn it into compost. It doesn’t smell, it removes friction and waste from my life, and I love it.

**I don’t get paid for this, but with current economic times, services like this are suffering from a loss of restaurant and commercial clients. I encourage you to check out Compost Now or similar services in your area and support local business and the earth all at once!**


Trader Joe’s Fruit & Vegetable Wash

So why are we talking about rotting food on a cooking blog? Because the step between prepping vegetables and forgetting they’re in your crisper drawer is vegetable stock. Yes, you can make something great out of something that you’re going to compost (resist the urge to throw it away, go watch all the documentaries on that to be convinced).

Start today by washing your fruits and veggies (a doubly good practice now, I like the Trader Joe’s vegetable wash). Just keep a plastic bag in your freezer ready to receive the bounty of peelings, stems, and scraps.

Vegetable Stock

For this recipe, I highly recommend busting out your slow cooker, but you can do this in a large pot on the stove as well.

Note: I don’t add salt to my stock, preferring to adjust and add it to the final dish. I also don’t typically add garlic, but many good cooks do and have recommended it to me. Experiment! Each stock is a unique blend of what you have been eating and have leftover or are end of life-ing (for all my tech readers). 

Makes 6-8 cups of vegetable stock

3-5 cups of vegetable scraps, peels, and ends (they can be end of life but pre-compost—wilted is fine, rotting is gross, use some judgment). Skip the cabbage and the cauliflower, too strong for anything but each other. Go for carrots, onions, parsley stems, asparagus tips, celery bits, and even potato peels. Save mushroom scraps separately and make mushroom stock from them.
1/2 onion if you don’t have onion or scallion scraps included
1 generous teaspoon of black peppercorns
bay leaf (optional)
garlic cloves or some garlic powder (recommended to me, optional if you want some additional garlic flavor)

  1. Place everything in a slow cooker and cover with water. Cook on high for 6 hours, taking the lid off for the last 30 minutes or so to reduce the stock. (If you cook on the stove, use a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for at least an hour, watching the water level as you go, and adding more if you need it.)
  2. When stock has reduced and is as flavorful as you’d like, remove from heat, let cool a bit, and strain out the vegetables and spices through a colander, pressing the veggie solids to get all of the liquid out. Compost these scraps!
  3. Now if you want to go next level, and I think that you do, break out your old ice cube tray. I’ve found ice cubes are around 1 tablespoon. Nothing is more annoying than a recipe that calls for this amount of stock. Freeze your liquid gold in the ice cube tray, a batch at a time, until you have several tablespoons. Pop them out and store them in the freezer in a zipper bag. Problem solved, thank me later.
  4. Impatient or lack an ice cube tray? Check your container drawer (not a Kubernetes joke for the tech folks) and select some of your small size containers. This works best in the flimsy plastic Ziploc style containers. Freeze the stock in small portions and pop them out of the containers and save in a plastic zipper bag. Now you have pre-measured stock in rational portion sizes.


Vegetable stock frozen in usable portion sizes.

Coming up next: Vegetable Risotto Two Ways



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Beans, Greens, and Cornbread: Creamed Kale Edition

Gentle Readers, now that you’ve been through your pantries and rediscovered the location of your stash of beans and rice, it’s time to cook. Today’s meal features three food groups we eat on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just in different forms. So this is neither the first nor the last time you’ll hear from me on beans, greens, and cornbread.


If you are new to The Practical Cook, or have not memorized my life story, I was born and raised in the southern part of the United States to a family of farmers and life-long cooks, vegetable growers, canners, and bakers. I’ve been in the kitchen since before I could see the top of the stove, and I’ve been eating meatless Sunday night meals since way before it was either cool or in a Chipotle app (though I suppose it is “meatless Monday” that is on trend).

But I digress. Why beans, greens, and cornbread? It’s high in nutrition, it’s easy to make in batches to feed a crowd, and there’s something in it for everyone at my table. My youngest, who we often refer to sarcastically as Dr. Atkins, loves bread like no other human I know. So when greens and beans are too boring/spicy/whatever for her, she can fill up on cornbread.

My eldest has loved legumes since she had her first chickpea as a child (and that was probably in her first 10 foods eaten), so anything involving beans she’ll eat. For Christmas, in her stocking, she got chow chow. For those unfamiliar, it’s a pickled relish that usually has cabbage, peppers, and some onion that you use as a condiment on beans. It can be spicy, sweet, or more vinegary, but it keeps the plainest bean dish interesting.

All three of us love greens, the leafier and the darker the better. Collards, mustard greens, arugula, kohlrabi greens, rainbow chard—the weirder and more bitter it is, the more we are going to eat of it.

This meal is affordable, flexible for what you have in your pantry, and a great way to use up leftovers or make good use out of shelf-stable food.

On the Table

Beans and Rice (I use my Instant Pot Faux Jambalaya Recipe with a couple of edits: I’ve quit using the spice packets in the beans, I add a healthy teaspoon of salt to the cooking water, I lower the cooking time a couple of minutes so I don’t overcook the small beans, and I doubled the tomato sauce because I stock the larger cans of no-salt tomato sauce.)

IMG_6690Corn bread: I have both plain cornmeal and self-rising on hand. For self-rising, my preference is to add some sugar and salt to make the flavor pop, and always choose melted butter over oil. (If you want THE resource for cornbread, for you or as a fabulous holiday gift, get The Cornbread Gospels [yes, I worked for the company in a past life, and swear by this cookbook]). I eat mine with molasses instead of honey and I’ll happily fight you on this topic.

Creamed kale: Now this is where we go off script. I had cream leftover from making yogurt in the InstantPot (yes, we can discuss that another time). I had two bags of kale that were overcrowding my fridge. If there’s creamed spinach, there must be creamed kale, right? Spoiler alert: my eldest called this restaurant quality and she isn’t given to exaggeration. We were both very impressed with ourselves (she researched recipes while I was prepping, a joint effort).

Creamed Kale Recipe

To prepare, I read two recipes (this one from Bobby Flay and this one) and then ignored them both. Okay, not ignored, but took some technique from and liberties with. Cooking is not baking, adapt at will to your tastes and what you have on hand. This is not the time to only make recipes that you have every ingredient for, this is the time to make do.


Creamed Kale

Tip: I’ve recently taken the habit of taking the half of an onion that is inevitably left from some recipe and chopping it right then and putting it in a zipper bag in the freezer. You’ll thank me and your past self later. I used some onion from frozen from this new habit. I also keep nutmeg whole on hand because I make carrot cakes and greens and it’s great in both and stays fresher longer. Use a Microplane grater to grate and yes order one if you don’t have it because it’s awesome. But also you can leave it out and just grind a little more black pepper or add some red pepper flakes. Don’t sweat the technique. 

Olive oil
around 1/4 cup chopped onions
1 bag of kale (Tuscan, fluffy, whatever Trader Joe’s or your store has in a bag in the salad aisle)
salt and pepper
some fresh grinds of nutmeg
1/2 cup of cream or so

  1. Heat a large non-stick skillet (use one that has a lid that fits, you’ll need to cover it later) over medium-high heat, then add about a tablespoon each of olive oil and butter. Melt the butter and when it’s hot add the onion and lower to medium. Cook the onion until it’s softened, a couple of minutes.
  2. Add the bag of kale, season with salt and pepper, stir well so you mix the oil/butter/onion mixture into the kale, then put a lid on it. Let this cook, covered, stirring a time or two, until the kale is significantly wilted and actually fits into your pan, a few minutes.
  3. Add a few grinds of nutmeg (maybe adds up to 1/4 teaspoon) and your cream. Stir. If you like creamier kale or have a really big bag, add more cream. Make sure all the kale has been bathed in delicious cream, cover it back up, and let it cook for several minutes, checking on it and stirring occasionally.
  4. When the kale is cooked to your preferred tenderness, and the cream is reduced, taste for seasoning, adjust, and serve.

Coming up next: Vegetable Stock from Scratch and Scraps


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Cooking from the Pantry

Hello Gentle Readers, it has been a minute. As we are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, many of us sheltering in place by choice or by law, there are a lot of us spending a lot more time in the kitchen. I’ve often said that having been raised on a farm by an extended family that did survive the Great Depression, that I had missed my era to shine.

Vegetable stock in progress

Vegetable stock from saved trimmings and scraps. Something for nothing, soon to be vegetable risotto.

I am a Great Depression style cook—I would rather make do with what I have, or use a simpler recipe, than shop for and cook exactly from a recipe. So bear with me, because I know there are a hundred better and more well-photographed recipes for anything I’ll put up here. But this is not a moment to go out and purchase one tablespoon or a third of a handful of something you don’t already own.

Now is the time to survey your pantry, decide what you like to eat, and figure out how to map those two things together. I’m kicking the blog off again for a while, and I will tell you what I’m making and how I did it, but I also hope it will inspire you to be confident in your taste and your skills, or maybe just provide a little comfort in a day full of challenging news.

With my life schedule upended, I have time not just to get back in the kitchen, but to teach the Practical Cooks Junior how I cook, how I create inventory and use up what we’ve got, and how to take a reasonable amount of time to get food on the table. (Not going to lie, Gentle Readers, I still don’t have the precision of a true baker, that is my youngest, or the persistence and sheer bravery that my eldest brings to the kitchen.)

Step 1: Know Your Pantry

What is in your pantry? Hopefully you were able to get some basic supplies, and if not, perhaps spend some time making a list and using a drive-through option or delivery service to get some building blocks.

The Practical Cook Pantry

  • Dried pasta
  • Dried beans: chickpeas, pintos, black-eyed peas, limas, mixed beans, and whoever took off with all of the black beans, we are going to have words
  • Canned beans, no-salt (you can add that yourself later): black beans, kidney beans, vegetarian baked beans, navy beans, refried beans
  • Canned fish: tuna and salmon (again, what other old lady besides me raids the canned salmon? It was all gone, and somebody is going to have a fit when they find the bones in there.)
  • Tomatoes: whole ones, sun-dried, cans of no-salt tomato sauce, and tubes of tomato paste
  • Dried potato flakes: not for mashed potatoes, but they are the bomb at thickening things that go wrong
  • Rice: jasmine, basmati, arborio
  • Pickles: refrigerator pickles, chow chow, pickled okra, and more pickles (because I’m Southern and we realize that when good gets boring, pickles help)
  • Indian pantry: some jars of my local store-brand simmer sauces, which are surprisingly good when doctored a bit, coconut milk, spices
  • Chinese pantry: new for me, and more on that in posts upcoming, I have an arsenal of soy sauces, vinegars, and pastes
  • Long-term veggies and fruits: cabbage, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes (sweet, Russet, Yukon Gold), apples
  • Baking: Assorted flours, sugar, butter, dried buttermilk, evaporated milk, raisins and nuts, oats, cornmeal

Do not panic if you don’t have a carbohydrate-laden war chest. Everyone eats differently. That’s really the point: my kitchen serves 4 people, all fairly big eaters, 2 pescatarians, 1 vegetarian, and me, the omnivore. Each non-meat eater is picky in a unique and special way (one hates tofu, one hates vegetables, one likes everything but carrots in certain forms, and one is allergic to fish).

However, it is possible to feed them all without resorting to Waffle House style short order cookery. Everyone eats eggs. Everyone eats pasta. Everyone loves cabbage for some unknown reason. There is hope.

Step 2: Know Your Tastes

Gentle Readers, I am obsessed with food. I do not expect you to be. But it does help to be aware of your tastes, and the preferences of those in lockdown with you. Here are a few basic parameters to assist in self-diagnosis.

Grilled Pineapple

I like foods grilled fruits and I cannot lie.


  • Texture: Meals are more successful if there are multiple textures. I’ve never been one for smoothies as meal replacements, I have to chew food to think I’m eating. So all soft meals don’t work, I need crunch. Picky eaters very often have texture issues. Figure that out and add some crunch or some options for the texture-challenged. This also applies to overly wet or dry foods. Soups may not pass muster, but stews will.
  • Spice: If you have spice adverse people, bring the heat to the table to add individually. Pickled jalepeños, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, spicy pickles, whatever it takes. If you are bored of pantry-safe meals, add some heat to change them up.
  • Heat: Now I mean temperature. Consider how you’re serving this meal. Does it taste the same freshly made, at room temp, cold? Does it suffer in one of those states? If you make ahead, don’t be afraid to suggest warming up an individual serving if someone likes piping hot food. Often dishes benefit from adding a little liquid when you reheat them.
  • Salt, butter, cream: As a very wise chef friend once told me, add enough of any of these, and food will taste good. Someone told me recently that they couldn’t taste salt, so they didn’t cook with it. Gentle readers, just no. If you have health conditions that preclude it, by all means work around. Otherwise, rinse your canned beans and use no-salt when you have the chance, and add kosher salt throughout the cooking process (salted water for pasta, salt to help sweat and sauté veggies, taste and finish with salt if needed before serving). Butter and cream, that goes without saying, and you don’t have to add it to everything, but it can go in one dish and it will be delicious.

Step 3: Prepare to Improvise

The internet is a glorious place full of flexible recipes, suggested swaps for missing ingredients, and easier recipes if you don’t feel like soufflé tonight. The other day I planned to make wontons with my leftover wonton wrappers. I made the filling, had to take a break, and then came back just before dinner. The wonton wrappers had obtained a mold that very well may be the missing cure to something. It was not good. The filling was cabbage and chives and fauxsage and I suddenly realized it looked a lot like moo shu. I know that moo shu pancakes are not unlike tortillas, which I did have. Best of all, it is much faster to heat up tortillas and filling than to make wontons (at least for this beginner!). Don’t panic, just pivot.

Tea with the Ladies Who Lunch: China Edition

Still my favorite critics, the Practical Cooks Junior have moved from loving dumplings to making them.

Don’t have some piece of kitchen gear? Look for alternate recipes or prep methods that approximate. Don’t have an ingredient? Decide if it’s central or a sidenote.

That is the journey through the mind of The Practical Cook. It’s how I learned to cook, it’s how I learned to eat, it’s how I learned to watch what people were eating and more successfully feed even the pickiest. And I’ve raised two people who are comfortable cooks in their own right.


Coming up next time, last night’s dinner complete with recipes: beans, greens, and cornbread. 


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Filed under Kitchen Philosophy, On the Table

Rabbit Food: Grilled Carrots with Cumin and Clementine

Gentle readers, I do apologize for my absence. Work has taken me abroad to eat new and different things (along with doing my actual job!). More on that in future epistles. For today I’m determined that spring will be in the air. Even if that air looks like this.


Yes, that’s snow. No, I don’t appreciate it in late March. 

But I digress. This weekend the weather became springlike for a hot second, and baby carrot bunches were on sale and looking so tempting, it was time to grill. Another pro tip, wear gloves when moving your grill around the deck. Or you will look down and wonder what happened.


First blood of the season. 

If you have been primarily a meat griller to date, let me encourage you to try any and all vegetables on the grill. I’ve got a grill basket for those things that won’t stay put on top of a grate, but carrots go so nicely lengthwise, and they’re so forgiving, they are a great starter.

The Practical Cook admits that this batch got, ahem, particularly caramelized shall we say, as TPC attempted to do too much at once and the grill needed a bit of adjustment. However, still delicious.

Grilled Carrots with Cumin and Clementine


2 batches fresh baby carrots, the kind with the green tops on, as close to being in the ground as you can get them (carrots lose water, and the longer they sit on the shelf or your fridge, the less wonderful they are on the grill)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
juice of 1 clementine
olive oil
salt and pepper


  1. Fire up the grill, preheat to medium-high. Scrub and oil grates so you’re ready for slightly sticky carrots.
  2. Meanwhile, clean and peel carrots. Remove all but a 1/2 inch of green carrot top.  (If you don’t own the OXO vegetable peeler, now is the time. It will change your life.)
  3. In a medium bowl, toss peeled carrots with olive oil and salt and pepper. Sprinkle cumin and clementine juice on evenly and toss again as necessary.
  4. Grill the carrots, about 8-10 minutes, or to preferred doneness. Cooking lower and slower will be softer carrots. Higher heat and faster = impatient family and more al dente.


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Filed under Kitchen Tool Talk, Recipes